O.J.'s Trumpet Page Interview

Teaching Brass

Book cover

An interview with Kristian Steenstrup

About Teaching Brass, Vincent Cichowicz says:

Kristian Steenstrup's Teaching Brass is a most comprehensive and detailed treatise on the pedagogical requirements associated with sound principles of performance on a brass instrument. His treatment of the laws of physics, physiology and psychology provides a wonderful guide to the interrelationship of these disciplines in performance practice. His research and documentation are impressive and I believe this volume to be a worthy addition to this field of study

We had a short "cyber-talk" with Kristian:

Before we start talking about the book, could you tell us a bit about your background as a trumpeter and teacher?
I grew up in Holstebro in the western part of Denmark. Nobody played anything in my family, but in the 4th grade my school offered everybody to get music lessons for a year. I wanted to play clarinet because I thought it was a saxophone, but my teacher thought I should play the trumpet, because I was the one who made most noise in my class. I quickly fell in love with the trumpet and pretty soon I played in the local marching band. I entered the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus when I was 19. I was very fortunate to experience Vincent Cichowicz doing a masterclass there and I just knew intuitively that I had to study with him eventually. Three years later I travelled to Chicago where I studied for 2 years. After a while there a friend recommended me to take lessons with Arnold Jacobs. His teaching went very well along with Cichowicz' teaching, so I had a fine combination going on. Earlier I knew about Alexander-technique, so it was natural for me to take lessons with John Henes who not only is a fine Alexander-technique teacher but also an excellent trumpet player and a former student of Jacobs and Cichowicz. Every week I went to hear the Chicago Symphony play and I learned so much from listening to Adolph Herseth who I also had a couple of lessons with. So fortunate I was to be around these great teachers!

How did this book project start?
During the last 10 years where I have been teaching and giving clinics extensively, many have asked me to write something about this since there is a lack of literature on the subject.

First I was just very curious myself about efficiency of playing and the complexity of the human body and the mind's control of it, so I listened to hundreds of hours of tapes of master classes and lessons with Arnold Jacobs. I made notes and even transcriptions of these master classes, and I thought there was so much valid information to pass on. At the same time this opened the door to a lot of other areas that would be interesting to explore, so I started to do a lot of reading in related areas. At one point I travelled to Chicago to go through Arnold Jacobs' library to see what literature he went through to get his knowledge. Then I got some time as part of my position at The Royal Academy of Music to write a book and the project could start.

The book turned out to be very different from what I expected, because once you get into science it is not so easy to postulate things, you have to back up with facts. Then you start to realise some of the complexities involved and every time you open the door to one subject, other doors open to other subjects, so my book really started to expand into different areas. During the process I started to get some of the answers I had been pursuing for many years, so it was really an interesting project.

In the introduction you mention Arnold Jacobs educational concept "Song and Wind". Could you elaborate on that?
Jacobs used this phrase to simplify what is necessary for a brass player to think about in his or her performance. When the brass player "sings" in the head, that means when the brain is involved in mentalizing the music or conceiving the music simultaneously with the actual playing, this thinking will be the stimulus that results in the reflex-response in the musculature of the lips and tongue. So much teaching is involved in trying to control these separate elements of the entire complex where Jacobs believed that the intelligent level of the brain should be involved in the musical programming and that what he called the computer level of the brain would act out the organisation of the musculature involved. This is so close to what a singer does. The brain of the singer is organizing the different degrees of tension in the vocal cords based on what he conceives musically. The brass player is just sending the nerve signals to his lips through the facial nerve instead of sending it to the vocal cords through the laryngeal nerve, but the thinking is very similar.

So the training of the musicianship, the song, of the individual is very important, because this is what tells the lips what to do. A brass player occupied with trying to have the "correct embouchure" and feeling it usually does not have much consciousness left to think musically and then a seemingly fine embouchure does not receive the information about the subtle differences in the degree of tension for each note. 

"Wind" refers to the wind player's programming of the respiratory system. When the wind player is trying to control muscles in performing the task that will supply the embouchure with the appropriate aerodynamic conditions, it can be hard to differentiate between the different muscle groups involved. Some of the muscles are inspiratory and some are expiratory.
If we try to control the muscles directly we might just trigger some of the other tasks that the respiratory muscles also participate in, for instance childbirth, defecation or hardening of the abdominal wall for protection of the internal organs etc.The sensory feedback from that area of the body is very limited, so the conscious control of it is also very limited. When the windplayer orders the blowing of wind at the embouchure or the reed by thinking of blowing outside the body, the brain organizes the different muscle groups in performing this action and is not confused into doing other tasks. 

In some of the recent brass method books I have seen, you can find advices like: "Hold a pole about 1 1/2 m long (about 5') jammed between a wall and the so-called support." Why is it, that so many brass educators still are so uninformed about breathing?
A lot of prominent players and teachers have recommended procedures like the one mentioned, and it is very hard to argue with a master performer's authority. For a long time almost everybody in for instance Denmark would believe in such a practice. When I came home from Chicago in 1990 this conviction was more normal than not, so it is not even many years ago.

If we study singing techniques we can see that the "tight-gut" method has been taught in especially the old German school of singing and probably this belief has flourished in this part of the world and has got into wind teaching, maybe because of lack of literature and research specifically for wind players.

As mentioned before, it can be hard to know what is going on down there while playing, because of the superficial sensory feedback from that area, and the good trumpet player may feel some tension in the abdominal region playing fortissimo in the high register using the abdominal muscles. He might mistakenly associate this feeling with pushing down the diaphragm at the same time, so the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm are cancelling out each other's actions and just participating in hardening the abdominal wall and not moving out any air. Then he might teach this as being the power for playing and this is in accordance with tradition.
But it is interesting to see how these beliefs are challenged and eventually evolution will show what strategies of using the respiratory system survive.

John Henes recommend your book "for every wind player". What in the book would be of specific interest to a woodwind player?
The dominant part of the book is about the respiratory aspects of playing wind instruments, and this does not distinguish between the different groups. The human physiology functions equally on all instruments, the aerodynamic demands are just very different between for instance a flute and an oboe or between a trumpet and a tuba.

Finally, where can people get the book?

o.j. 2004